Gray Skies

If Gov. Davis has his way, California soon will have dozens of new power plants -- a lot of them in the wrong places, some of them unnecessary, and very, very few of them based on renewable energy

Couched in those terms, it's a crisis Davis is solving.

The state -- which didn't build a single major power plant between 1995 and 1999 -- has approved 26 new plants since April 1999, with 16 more projects pending approval, and at least 10 more applications expected to be filed. By approving power plants at an unprecedented rate, the governor, clearly, is doing something about the electricity crisis, and he's taken great strides to let people know this. Every installment in the "Flex Your Power" conservation advertising campaign, which has been almost impossible to avoid on network television, closes with a reminder that "California is building 16 major new power plants."

Likewise, during a May interview for a PBS Frontlinedocumentary on deregulation of electricity markets, Davis boasted of building more power plants than any governor in the state's history. "In the 12 years before us, not a single major plant of consequence was built," he said. "I've approved 13 major plants. Eight are under construction as we're talking."

But a glance inside the process for examining new power-plant proposals suggests that the agency in charge, the California Energy Commission, is overwhelmed. In the highly political atmosphere created by the power crisis, the commission appears to be well on the way to approving unnecessarily large plants and allowing needed plants to be built in what are probably the wrong places -- particularly in minority neighborhoods that already are home to power plants. More worrisome, environmentalists, engineers, and economists say, is the lack of a statewide energy plan. Because the Energy Commission has rushed to approve power plants without such a plan, nearly all of the new plants expected to be built will be fueled by natural gas, a commodity that is prone to supply shortages and price spikes that would be reflected in shortages and price spikes in the electric market. Meanwhile, many observers of the commission say, proven alternative energy sources, especially solar and wind power, are being essentially ignored.

Nowhere is the collapse of California's power-plant licensing process more obvious than in southeast San Francisco, where a minority community that believes itself to have been an industrial dumping ground is trying to fight off a massive expansion to an existing power plant on Illinois Street, near Potrero Hill. The Potrero expansion is just one of three huge power plants being plotted in the area with basically no consideration to possible supplies of renewable energy. If all three are built, the city would wind up with more electrical generating capacity than it will need, according to projections, for the next 40 years. Meanwhile, southeast San Francisco's older, dirtier plants -- which were supposed to be rendered unnecessary by newer projects -- will probably continue polluting for years, in part because the operator of the state's electrical grid views them as necessary to keep a new, "deregulated" electricity market operating properly.

A crisis of insufficient supply, it now seems, is morphing into a crisis of indiscriminate supplying.

Founded in 1974, the Sacramento-based California Energy Commission is the state agency in charge of siting and approving new power plants. The commission is apparently very good at its job. It has never rejected a power-plant application.

Historically, though, the commission hasn't been all that busy. Between 1979 and 1997, the commission licensed about 5,400 megawatts of new electricity generation in the state, enough power for about 5.4 million homes. That averages out to one or two major power plants in a typical year. Between 1994 and 1997, when the industry was holding its breath about the state's jump into the deregulation of the electric power market, the commission didn't license a single major power plant.

But the CEC is busy now. Since April 1999, it has approved 10,000 megawatts of new electricity. That number includes neither the 16 major power plants currently being reviewed by the commission, nor the 10 proposed major plants expected to enter the approval process soon.

Nor does it include the 12 "peaker" plants -- nearly 880 more megawatts -- approved since 1999, lately with the help of a 21-day "emergency siting" process that Davis mandated with an executive order in April. (Peakers are quick-starting, oil-burning facilities that only run during periods of peak demand. Because they tend to spew far more pollution than natural gas-burning plants, peakers are limited in the amount of time they can run.)

"It's definitely been hectic," says Rob Schlichting of the CEC's siting department. "This is an unprecedented feat in the history of California."

Pointing to a raft of newly hired staffers and consultants, Schlichting contends the state is up to the task of overseeing a massive power-plant construction program. The San Francisco experience suggests otherwise.

Southeast San Francisco is a definite contender for the title of Most Polluted Neighborhood in California. Starting the catalog of industrial poisoning is the Hunters Point Shipyard, home to an amazing stew of chemical and nuclear contaminants and easily one of the most polluted parcels of property in America. (Ongoing attempts to clean up the shipyard spew dust into the already particle-filled air of the nearby Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.) Also, the area has been (and will continue to be) beset by dust from the construction of the UCSF Mission Bay campus (which is expected to last 20 years), as well as from the construction of the Third Street light-rail Muni line, which will run through the heart of the Bayview neighborhood. In addition, there are the standard, everyday emissions from Interstate 280 and the area's countless industrial sites. And lately, pollution in the area has been even worse: Davis has ordered Mirant to run its dirtier, oil-burning peaker units at Potrero Hill in excess of state pollution standards, sparking a city lawsuit against both Mirant and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. An old, inefficient, highly polluting power plant in Hunters Point, owned by PG&E, has been running hard as well.

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